Milosevic on Trial

Milosevic on Trial

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The prospect of Slobodan Milosevic facing justice before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia is a giant step. For the first time in history a former head of state will be tried for crimes against humanity and violations of the laws of war committed during his reign. Milosevic and his cronies must face judgment for the death and suffering they wreaked on the Balkans in furtherance of the delusion of a Greater Serbia. What concerns us at this point is that the trial be an exemplary one, fully upholding the ideal of an objective international tribunal capable of trying and punishing the crimes of war. There are signs that it will not.

For one thing, the indictment against Milosevic is primarily limited to the killings and ethnic cleansing in Kosovo that occurred after NATO’s bombing campaign was launched. It is essential that Chief Prosecutor Carla Del Ponte bring the additional charges covering the war in Bosnia that she has promised. A trial limited to atrocities in Kosovo will raise the issue of the legitimacy of NATO’s bombing campaign, which was undertaken without UN authorization and which not only Milosevic’s supporters will argue led to much of the Serb violence that followed. Would the NATO powers release secret intelligence gathered at the time that could throw light on who ordered the massacres, as well as the strategy behind the bombing campaign? The point is that if this relevant evidence is withheld, the trial will be tainted and will fuel suspicions that it is designed to vindicate NATO’s war.

The slaughter in Bosnia–the massacres of Muslims, the atrocities, rapes and ethnic cleansing–was far greater than in Kosovo,and the perpetrators, some of them still at large, must be punished. But bringing in Bosnia (or Croatia) will again open up the question of the role of the United States and the West. Their long support of Milosevic as the man to deal with in the Balkans should be aired in court. Will the governments in Washington and in other NATO capitals produce evidence from their files relative to their appeasement? Not that such information would exculpate Milosevic, but without it the trial will be perceived as victor’s justice.

This leads to another question: Were the means and the timing of Milosevic’s apprehension proper, in terms of the objectives of international law? A case can be made that they were not. In turning Milosevic over to The Hague, the Serbian government acted under the gun–a threat by the United States that it would veto promised foreign aid. This was a power play, not law. Also, the extradition violated Yugoslav law and bypassed President Vojislav Kostunica, who heads Yugoslavia’s first freely elected government in many years. Undercutting the rule of law is no way to encourage a fragile democracy. It arguably would have been better for the Serbs themselves to try Milosevic first. As Kostunica said, “In order for the people to realize what justice is, it should be in their hands.”

Ultimately, though, Milosevic should answer to the international community if the principle of prohibiting war crimes is to be upheld. But the reckoning must take place before a fully independent international court. In the long run, the world must move beyond ad hoc courts like the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, set up for specific crimes, to an autonomous body like the International Criminal Court. Milosevic’s crimes were against humanity and international law, not the United States and NATO.

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